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6 simple gridiron guidelines NFL photographer Jeff Lewis uses on the field

For most of us, watching Sunday Night Football means either in front of the flat screen or from high up in the nosebleed seats of our local stadiums. But once in a while we get lucky: A best bud just scored two free tickets for you and him to an upcoming game just rows from the players’ bench; your company gave you some unused tickets to choice seats; or you finally decide to plunk down for season tickets close to the action. Regardless, if you are going to be that close, bring along your DSLR to capture it. 

But football can be a tricky sport to photograph. There are 22 players on the field crashing into each other at intense speeds at the same time, as well as dealing with the difficult midday sun, shooting at night, or improper lighting inside dome stadiums – plus screaming fans ready to bounce up at a moment’s notice to block your anticipated shot.

To help you take some award-winning pigskin pics at an NFL game, we reached out to NFL Network photographer Jeff Lewis to provide some tips. To shoot in the NFL, Lewis relies heavily on speed: his own and that of his equipment. From Thursdays to Mondays during the season he is constantly racing up and down the sidelines, predicting both teams’ next plays to capture the shot that counts.

“Football is an amazing game to photograph at all levels from the NFL to Pop Warner (youth football), but to photograph a football game requires just as much an understanding of what’s going on the field as understanding your camera,” Lewis says. “If you can anticipate what’s about to happen, you can move into position and capture it.”

Even if you never get as close to the field as Lewis does, you can apply his easy tips to your kids’ regional match, a college game, or a similar type of game, say a local rugby competition. Here’s how Lewis does it.

Use a long lens and a shorter zoom lens

An NFL football field is 120 yards long from the back of the end zone to the other end zone and 53.3 yards wide. Photographers then have to stay behind a dotted line, 6 feet from the playing field. “Because the action is usually in the middle of the field, photographers have to use a telephoto lens to get close to the action,” Lewis says. “A 300mm f/2.8 lens is great but a 400mm f/2.8 lens is ideal. At times, hopefully during a play, the action comes your way but it is at such a fast rate that the only way to capture it is by using a second camera body with a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens or even a 24-70mm lens. This allows you to capture the action from a distance and change cameras when the action is on top of you as they are scoring a touchdown.”

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Use a high shutter speed

Lewis points out that football is a very fast and violent game once the play has started. Athletes move at blazing speeds and hit at high impact. “To capture this, you need a shutter of at least 1,250th of a second and sometimes up to 2,500th of a second. To obtain this, I usually shoot on Aperture Priority with the aperture at f/4 and occasionally f/3.5. I tend to stay a little bit away from 2.8 because of the shallow depth-of-field and I do want to give myself a little space to adjust if needed. Once it starts to get dark, I change to Shutter Priority between 1,250th of a second to 1,600th of a second and let the camera pick my aperture to ensure a high shutter speed.”

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Shoot on Al Servo (Continuous Focus) and in your burst mode

The action during a play in a football game lasts for about 5 seconds with athletes running at top speed in every direction, Lewis explains. “To capture action in this scenario, use your camera’s follow focus to track the athletes as they run and use your burst mode to capture as many frames per second as you can. This will ensure that your camera will follow the player you are tracking and take just as many pictures as needed to get the perfect shot.”

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Perspective, perspective, perspective

“Once you understand the camera settings and are dialed in with your equipment, the key to creating great football images is finding the correct perspective for any given play. In the game of football, unlike other sports, you have the freedom to move with the play, so if you believe your team is throwing down field, you can run to the end zone to capture a great touchdown catch,” he says. “You can also run to the back side of the quarterback if you believe a big sack is coming. Besides moving with the play, your camera position is just as important. I prefer to place the camera as low to the ground as I can get it to create a unique perspective. The lower you place your camera, the more prominent the athlete appears and the more you are able to get the crowd in the shot to create a more dramatic looking image.” 

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What you use is just as important as your camera settings

“If you are shooting a game and somebody scores a touchdown, they are not going to replay the down because you missed the shot. Moments and plays in football only happen once and you will need a memory card that will keep you from missing that amazing pass, sack, run, or touchdown catch,” Lewis says.

To capture the defining moments, he uses his Canon EOS-1D Mark III digital camera, eight SanDisk Extreme flash memory cards, and the aforementioned burst mode. This mode depends on both a speedy camera and high-performance cards to capture as many images as possible within a few seconds. When the game is over, it’s critical that Lewis’ photos are processed and uploaded very fast so his images arrive to the news agencies first

“SanDisk Extreme memory cards are very fast and reliable and I recommend them to all photographers,” Lewis adds.

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Just have fun with it

If you miss a play because you were out of position, move on and keep shooting. “Eventually the game will come your way and you will get that winning shot. Be patient when taking football pictures. You will not always be in the best position to take good pictures, but eventually you will get a good shot. Use downtime to get some pictures of the crowd, cheerleaders, coaches, and wide-angle pictures of the field.”

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Jeff Lewis is a leading sports photographer for the Associated Press, NFL Network, and the Los Angeles Sentinel. He shoots major sporting events for the NFL, MLB, NBA, and more, and his photographs appear in daily newspapers, magazines, and online outlets across the nation. 

(Copyright images courtesy of Jeff Lewis)

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